As people are increasingly choosing to download music, the liner notes from the CD are posted here. Hopefully the listener will enjoy them and come to understand Ernst Bacon’s guitar music a bit more through reading them.
The Complete Works for Solo Guitar
This recording serves to document and introduce the historically significant and exceptional works for the guitar by American composer Ernst Bacon (1898-1990). The nineteen pieces on this disc, many of them “lost” for more than forty years, articulate an American sound that Bacon helped to forge, along with Copland, Thomson, Harris and others, during the first half of the 20th century. With his evocative works of Americana now unearthed (such as Four Pieces for Guitar, Coon Hollow, and The Erie Canal), we may rightly view Ernst Bacon as the guitarist’s Aaron Copland.
Although highly regarded as a composer of more than 250 art songs (especially his settings of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman), Bacon’s many instrumental works were overlooked during the era of the avant-garde. As a guitar composer, Ernst Bacon is virtually unknown aside from his single published guitar piece, Parting (1968), which is now out of print.
However, unbeknownst to almost everyone, Bacon was quietly composing guitar music for almost three decades – from the 1960s through the 1980s. This music maintains a clearly defined voice that permeates the entire repertoire, yet the pieces range in style and form – from an eighteen-minute set of folk-inspired works (Four Pieces for Guitar), to compact character pieces (Just Wondering, A Walk in the Hills and Anything), to miniature canons (A Christmas Canon and Marinio.)
Most of these works were written for Joseph Bacon, the composer’s son, and until now this repertoire has been kept mainly within the Bacon family. Aside from Parting, the works existed only in the composer’s hand and in unedited versions. As a whole, the repertoire has never before been recorded or published. These newly unearthed works constitute a much needed find, as there is a dearth of 20th century guitar music from the United States. Bacon’s output for the guitar singlehandedly fills this gap.
Ernst Bacon was born in Chicago on May 26, 1898 to a Viennese mother and Wisconsin father. There, the American poet and folklorist, Carl Sandburg, became an early and important mentor. Sandburg introduced Bacon to America’s rich heritage of folksongs and encouraged him to capture their essence in his music. Sandburg’s mentorship and Dvorak’s early influence and example were formative for Bacon as he sought his own distinctive voice.
In addition to his many art songs, Bacon’s considerable output includes chamber music, works for piano, orchestra and the stage. As a composer, his chief aim was to capture the spirit of America as expressed in its poetry, folk songs, history and geography. Works like Ford ’s Theatre, Tumbleweeds, Pigtown Fling and A Tree on the Plains exemplify this approach. In addition to composing, Bacon was a concert pianist, a landscape painter, a conductor, and a writer of hundreds of essays. Two of his books, Words on Music (1960) and Notes on the Piano (1963), were published by Syracuse University Press.
Despite his significant output, Bacon is a remarkably underrated composer. This is surprising when considering his career. Bacon held teaching positions at the Eastman School, San Francisco Conservatory, Syracuse University and other institutions, and was appointed head of the WPA federal music project in San Francisco. He was recognized with a Pulitzer Scholarship, three Guggenheim Fellowships, and grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Bacon was closely associated with some of the leading artistic figures of the day, including Aaron Copland, Carl Sandburg, Ansel Adams, and Virgil Thomson, who described Bacon as “one of America’s best composers.”
Bradley Colten has appeared in performance throughout the United States and in Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland as a soloist and chamber musician. Highlight appearances include performances on the New World Symphony Orchestra’s chamber music series, at the GFA Festival, the NY Guitar Seminar at Mannes, and at the Bowdoin Summer Music and New England Conservatory Music Festivals. Bradley has been featured in print, online and on air: Articles about Bradley have appeared in Guitar Review, his debut CD was featured on NPR’s “Open Mic”, and he has performed live on New York City’s “Soundcheck” on WNYC radio.
Bradley is a founding member of Arc Duo, an award-winning flute and guitar ensemble. Arc Duo’s performance highlights include recitals at Caramoor Music Festival, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall, where its debut was noted by Guitar Review magazine as “electrifying, reflective, and always engaging”. Soundboard Magazine hailed Arc Duo’s debut CD as an “indispensable addition to the guitar’s discography”. The duo’s most recent recording, “The Diller-Quaile Commissions” was released by Azica Records in August 2012.
Bradley is a recipient of the Andrés Segovia Award from the Manhattan School of Music and served as a chamber music coach at the school. He was noted with “Performance Distinction” after his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. While still at New England Conservatory, The Boston Globe hailed Bradley for his “sensitive” Boston premiere of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #10 in Jordan Hall.
Bradley holds undergraduate degrees from Tufts University and New England Conservatory, and Masters and Doctorate degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. Bradley is responsible for the recent unearthing of the Ernst Bacon guitar repertoire and his doctorate dissertation on Bacon’s guitar music is seminal in the field. Bradley plays on a Daryl Perry guitar, endorses Hannabach Strings and is an Azica Recording Artist.
1-4. Four Pieces for Guitar: Parting, Fulfillment, Quiet Hallelujah, The Morning Star
This work represents the centerpiece in Bacon’s guitar catalog. At approximately eighteen minutes, the work taken as a whole, and given its scope and quality, is a major addition to the repertoire. Interestingly, the individual pieces in this work were, in essence, scattered by history and have only now been reconstructed as a suite.
Bacon never explicitly indicated the works were conceived as a set, and there is no cataloging evidence that they were ever assigned as such. Nonetheless, the four pieces that constitute this work are each found in manuscript form with successive Roman numerals preceding their titles. The Roman numerals seem to indicate the composer’s desire to organize the associated works as a series. This supposition is buoyed by the fact that these four works contain many similarities and coordinate remarkably well in regard to tonality and material content. Moreover, all four works are definitively American in spirit.
Still further evidence of the composer’s intent to present these pieces as a group may be found in the1968 published version of Parting. As a footnote on the first page of the score, the following inscription is written: “A freely used tune from G. L. Jackson’s “Another Sheaf of White Spirituals” (University of Florida, 1952)”. This note references an obscure and out of print anthology by George Pullen Jackson. (Upon publication, Jackson’s middle initial was mistakenly printed as an “L”.) With inspection, the main tunes from all four works can indeed be found in Jackson’s anthology. In fact, the manuscript score of Fulfillment that contains a Roman numeral also contains Parting’s exact same footnote. Considering the Roman numeral series, the shared anthology source, and the similarities in regard to material, it is clear that these works were conceived as a set. Accordingly, and with the counsel of Joseph Bacon (the composer’s son), I have named this newly re-assembled work, Four Pieces for Guitar.
Dated 1983, Toro was composed during a year that saw the completion of at least three other guitar works: Coon Hollow, Cambiataria – comodo, and Cambiataria – moderato. While acknowledging the poor documentation and uncertainty in regard to composition dates, there are at least two other works that were most likely composed in or around 1983 – The Erie Canal and Bothin Street. Of these, The Erie Canal seems most related to Toro. It is a testament to America as Toro is a tribute to Spain.
“Toro” is Spanish for “bull” and is closely associated with the bull fighting tradition. In Toro, Bacon captures the muscular, tense, high-drama of the bullring. The marcato open-string notes, the fortissimo, rasgueado chords that follow and the many florid, cast-off passages throughout the work capture the flamboyance and theatrics often associated with the bullring.
Toro’s primary theme resembles the popular Spanish tune, Los Reyes de la Baraja. Bacon used this tune in two previous works: Pico Perdido, the last movement of his piano concerto (1961) and Mexican Hat, the final movement of his violin/piano suite, Tumbleweeds (1978). In Toro, Bacon adapts the tune loosely, as he did frequently with other borrowed melodies.
6. Nuka, for Guitar
In manuscript form this piece is well detailed and polished – in every way a finished work, but for the absence of a title. Instead, at the top of the page the work is simply marked “Slowly”. Importantly, the main theme is a self-borrowed tune heard in the Lento movement of Bacon’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1983) and in the piano work, Nuka. “Nuka” is the pet-name Bacon had for his daughter, Madeline. In my visit to her, Ellen Bacon (the composer’s widow) and I first thought the title, Lullaby would appropriately capture the spirit and simplicity of this work. However, given the close association to the piano piece and Madeline’s theme, we felt it seemed appropriate to title the guitar work, Nuka, for Guitar and in doing so pay homage to the other works and the composer’s youngest daughter. Based on manuscript handwriting, this Nuka – the one for guitar – was most likely written in the late 1970s; the piano work was published in 1955 as part of a collection of children’s piano pieces called Maple Sugaring. Considering these dates, the guitar work is derived from the piano piece. However, Nuka, for Guitar is fitted with a unique and dramatic introduction, development and conclusion. In this regard, it is decidedly original.
7. Coon Hollow
Written in 1983, the Coon Hollow manuscript offers an interesting riddle: the exact music is associated with two different titles. One score has a title page that reads, Coon Hollow; for guitar. The other has The Tin Lizzie written in the top margin of the first page. Despite the identical scores, Coon Hollow is identified as a guitar work and The Tin Lizzie is catalogued as a piano solo piece in the Library of Congress. The Library’s Tin Lizzie score has some additional, stray markings written in another pen, but in all other ways it matches the Coon Hollow guitar score exactly. In essence, the one manuscript in question has two identities. Adding to the confusion, the title “Coon Hollow” is itself ambiguous. While the Library of Congress lists Coon Hollow as a guitar work, Madeline Salocks (Bacon’s second daughter) has in her possession a score with the same title that is an entirely different work – a piano duo for four hands.
Regardless of whatever else it may be, Coon Hollow is also clearly a guitar work. It fits perfectly on the instrument and has “for guitar” written on its title page in the composer’s hand. And, by the sound of it, Coon Hollow is the most carefree of Bacon’s guitar works. The piece is fun, exciting and cheerful; it is, in essence, a lively, Appalachian-inspired romp.
8-9. Two Cambiataria: Moderato, Comodo
Bacon wrote two guitar pieces entitled Cambiataria. I have chosen to differentiate the works by indicating their tempo markings, “moderato” and “comodo”. Both written in 1983, having the same title, and containing similar structures, these two, ruminating works are clearly related. Their title, Cambiataria, affords an interesting insight into Ernst Bacon and his thinking. Cambiata is a Renaissance dissonance and aria is a song. In short, Bacon’s title defines and describes these works – they are dissonant songs. This wordplay reveals an intellectual and lighthearted nature that is often present in Bacon’s music.
10-12. Three Canons: A Christmas Canon, Anniversary Canon, Marinio
While not conceived as a set, these pieces – A Christmas Canon, Anniversary Canon and Marinio work nicely together. A Christmas Canon was jotted down on a scrap of paper in 1964. Anniversary Canon was written in 1984, and Marinio was composed in 1988. The first and last works were written for Bacon’s son, Joseph, who was kind enough to lend the pieces for analysis and recording. Interestingly, the two works dedicated to Joseph most likely mark the first and last guitar work written by the composer.
Anniversary Canon is dedicated to Ellen Bacon, Ernst’s widow. The original is framed on a wall in her home. It should be noted that Anniversary Canon has no ascribed instrument; there is no reason to assume that the work is meant for the guitar. But, it works beautifully on the instrument and coordinates perfectly with the other two canons.
Taken together, the three canons are not quite three minutes long. They are charming, sophisticated miniatures, and make for a lovely, intimate set.
13. Just Wondering
Based on handwriting and style, Just Wondering was most likely composed in the late 1970s. The work is brief and evocative; lasting just over a minute, it captures the introspective and brooding mood that is reflected in its title.
This impulse in Bacon’s guitar music toward the character piece and the miniature (seen also in A Walk in the Hills, Anything, Episode, Allegro and Bothin Street) will seem familiar when considering Bacon’s keen interest in art song. In fact, when considering that many of the guitar works are short and produce a succinct, clearly articulated and singular mood, it can be said that Bacon was quite occupied with the miniature form and the character piece for the guitar.
14. The Erie Canal
Perhaps more than any of his other guitar works, The Erie Canal epitomizes Ernst Bacon’s interest in an American spirit and sound. The piece is based on the American folk song, Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal that was written in 1905 by Thomas S. Allen. A workman’s song about life on the Erie Canal, the folksinger Pete Seeger and others popularized the tune in America.
The guitar work is undated but, in assessing the penmanship and style, it can confidently be assigned to the late 1970s. The manuscript is a difficult document in regard to penmanship and clarity: there are whited-out measures, missing details and mistakes. Additionally, there are many notes and chords that are difficult to decipher. Despite these issues, with some patient decoding and a few, limited editorial additions, the work is fully realizable. And, it is well worth the effort; The Erie Canal is formidable and winning with its traditional tunes, forceful textures, imaginative structure and quintessentially American sound.
15. Bothin Street
Bothin Street is interesting not only for its excellent musical quality but also for extra-musical reasons. The title refers to Joseph Bacon’s (the composer’s son) one time address in Fairfax, CA. The composer also wrote a short vignette just after the work’s end: By this time the cars are asleep, most lights are out – only one glowing at No. 74 where music and philosophy are in silent debate, with occasional distracting thoughts, in Goethe’s words, “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.”
The Goethe reference, “The Eternal Feminine draws us upward”, is the last line of Faust (Part Two) and refers to woman’s ability to inspire and enlighten the rest of humanity. The vignette paints a vivid picture of an intimate evening with music and philosophical debate. The work captures this mood evocatively: the slow moving pace that grows then subsides, the single line that seems at times to be two divergent voices in conversation. Extra-musically, the work is charming. Musically, the piece is deeply satisfying – it is highly descriptive within its own, complete sonic world.
The brief Allegro can be reasonably thought of as a sketch: It is contained on a single page of manuscript along with a single, unrelated system of piano music written above it. It has none of the phrase markings present in other works, and no title. Additionally, while the low notes occurring toward the end of the piece necessitate an alternate tuning, Bacon fails to call for a scordatura in the score, as he did in other scores. Moreover, the register, texture and playability are, at first glance, awkward for the guitar.
Given all the above issues, Allegro – more than any other of Bacon’s guitar works – confronts the editor with significant challenges. However, even considering all these confounding points, compositionally speaking, Allegro offers a complete idea and works beautifully as a miniature piece. In short, Allegro is compelling enough, when realized, to justify the needed editorial work.
A gem of a piece, Episode has much in common with Allegro. Both works are short – Episode consists of sixty measures, Allegro has fifty-two. Both works are bisected by a centrally located measure of repose that is accentuated by a fermata and followed with a double bar. And, as they unfold both works move from rather thin to thicker textures. Also, when surveying Bacon’s guitar output, Episode and Allegro stand apart in that they both lack the more narrative and colorful titles that adorn all the other guitar works. That said, Episode is nothing if not dramatic. Among other highlights, at its virtual center point, Bacon quotes Dies Irae, the haunting, thirteenth century Latin hymn describing the Day of Judgment.
18-19. Two Pieces:Anything, A Walk in the Hills
These two pieces were grouped together by Bacon with a common title page which reads: A Walk in the Hills / for Guitar / also / “Anything” / dedicated to my son, Joe. / Pop / edit and improve as you like. The inscription is an informative and intimate one from Bacon to his son, Joseph. It reads more as a gift from father to son than a commission from composer to guitarist. On a later page Bacon titles the second piece, “Another, call it ‘Anything’”. Whether or not the common cover page suggests a performance set, the two pieces do work very well together. Each is brief, has a light texture, and each has the qualities of a character piece – they both capture a mood effectively and imaginatively.
I am truly grateful to those who have offered tremendous and indispensible support: The Ernst Bacon Society, Hannabach Strings, and The Diller-Quaile School of Music, Ellen Bacon, Joseph Bacon, Arthur Bacon, Sam Farrell, Madeline Salocks, David Leisner, Reiko Fueting, Luc Hotaling, Lauren Monchik, Richard Colten and Susanne Colten-Carey.
And especially, my heartfelt thanks goes to my wife, Allison Shea McDermott.
Find out more about guitarist Bradley Colten and composer Ernst Bacon at http://www.bradleycolten.com.